A Michigan Institute for Social Research study found that education majors are the likeliest of any college demographic group to become more religious within six years of graduating high school. The institution determined religiosity based on rates of participation in religious services, as well as how important a role respondents said religion played in their lives.
As an education major myself, who has defied the odds and is a decidedly agnostic individual, this trend troubles me — what causes education majors to become more religious when college education is generally correlated with a loss of religiosity? And what does this imply about the quality of education future teachers can offer?
One explanation for education majors’ propensity to become more religious is the department’s undeniable gender imbalance. Female students dominate the education field in a way comparable to men’s domination of explicitly secular arenas, where nonreligious women often find themselves doubly outnumbered. Why? Are females more likely to exhibit obedience within both the religious and academic realm, causing them to be high-achieving, pious, teaching candidates? Does the masculine tendency to act out in a school setting and to reject religious norms reflect a predisposition to call authority into question? Or are schools and churches more compatible with female cognitive development, whose onset occurs earlier than that of males? Girls more commonly excel in these spheres and seek satisfaction within them, likely because the authority-compliance dynamic is better suited for individuals more inclined to sit quietly for long periods of time and whose social and verbal abilities mature at an earlier age. Furthermore, male students are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disorders such as ADD and ADHD, which hinder the gratification they derive from school; are these issues impacting male religiosity, or are female gender norms that prophesize female submissiveness the culprit?
Departing from education majors in particular, one can similarly make inferences about other demographics, notably business majors, who also demonstrate an increase in religiosity. Though the business field has traditionally been populated disproportionately by men, it is becoming increasingly balanced; 48% of individuals earning business degrees in 2009 were female. If gender isn’t overwhelmingly influencing the data, could it be that the disposition (as a result of upbringing or personality traits) of many business majors, like education majors, are easily conditioned to accept certain procedures and truths as inevitable?
Of the majors analyzed, those in the sciences and humanities saw the greatest decrease in religiosity. The authors of the study attribute this — though often presumed to be the result of evolutionary theory — to the influence of Postmodernism, a school of thought emphasizing cynicism towards objective truth. Postmodernists derive their skepticism from the significant role that power relations and social constructs play in humans’ cognizance of reality, and instead perceive the world as being made up of plural, relative truths, lacking any reducible core.
If education majors are so estranged from and so thoroughly unaffected by Postmodernism, enrolling in few classes that expose them to the philosophical and ethical questions Postmodernism raises, could their religiosity result from a ready acceptation of the modern truths presented to them? After all, many education majors (myself included) were the “good note-takers” who accepted the mandates dictated by figures of authority, like teachers, administrators, or clergy. It follows that individuals who readily subsume externally-imposed norms will just as readily accept other beliefs and codes of behavior without challenge or critique. Could this trend be indicative of a compliant, docile attitude common to those who wish to be teachers and business tycoons? Are future teachers passive receptacles of information, neither exploring new modes of thought nor questioning established and perhaps antiquated ideologies? And if so, how does this reflect on the content and implicit social expectations teachers present in their classrooms?
If the increase in religiosity among business majors is also the result of an unfamiliarity with Postmodern concepts — and thus a complacency towards common truths — how far does their indiscriminate acceptance of actuality extend? Perhaps they are as uncritical about the truths of the world and human nature as they are about the ethical practices proffered to them. And if so, does this willing acceptance of truths and ethical procedures make them more or less suitable for the business world? More or less successful? More or less ethical? If the linchpin of an individual’s moral code for the majority of his or her life is a belief in god (and an afterlife with either a reward or punishment) what happens if or when this impetus for moral action dissipates? Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, points out that though the use of a “carrot-and-stick” system of incentives has short-term behavioral benefits, in the long-term this method of behavior modification becomes increasingly ineffectual. If the only reward or consequence system with which CEOs must reckon is one hinged upon the profitability of a business — and for some, the apparent state of their souls — are the (un)ethical practices of a handful of CEOs the result of a dwindling interest in their souls and an increasing interest in the constantly revitalized satisfaction gained through their fiscal success?
In light of these speculations about the impact these trends have on society at large, it seems a reconsideration of the basis for traditionally proffered morality is in order. Rather than offering relevant, contemporary insight on the world, supernatural explanations offer merely a deceptive satiation for intellectual curiosity, which would otherwise encourage an exploration and critical analysis of moral conundrums. If these explanations inadequately address increasingly prevalent moral gray areas, perhaps it is time to confront these shaky foundations and inform young people about the multifarious approaches to morality available. If the family is failing to instill a coherent and dependable sense of moral responsibility in children, due to an increase in time parents and offspring spend independently at work or socially, and teachers are ill-equipped to discuss or integrate moral dilemmas into the classroom because of their straight-laced, uncritical schooling, shouldn’t this be cause for concern? It’s time to reevaluate not only the assessments and standards used to measure supposed ‘growth’ in students but also the very expectations we have for the curriculum. If public education is designed to prepare students to become functioning citizens of the world, shouldn’t we consider how we are preparing students to confront moral issues both in their personal lives as well as in their chosen occupation?